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Now, in The Personal Beliefs of Jimmy Carter, readers have for the first time in one volume the complete text of his spiritual autobiography, Living Faith, in which President Carter shares the values and experiences that have shaped his life, and Sources of Strength, fifty-two of his favorite Bible lessons that he has taught at his hometown church in Plains, Georgia, over the decades. These radiant works beautifully capture how President Carter has transformed his deep religious faith into an enduring course of action that has brought life and hope to those most in need. Bestsellers when they first published, these two books are even more resonant today as we continue to search for the answers to life’s most meaningful questions.
The jailer asked, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul answered, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you
will be saved--you and your household."--Acts 16:30-31
Many people have asked the question the jailer does here, and Paul's simple response is the answer that has been accepted by almost two billion Christians living around the world today. As a young man, I joined other members of our church in carrying this same message about Jesus Christ to the families in our rural community who were not Christians. This was very difficult for me, because I was always doubtful about the reception we would receive. I usually knew the families well, so I was somewhat embarrassed about implying that I was superior in some way, having knowledge or a privileged position that they didn't.
However, the company of another man always strengthened me. We were well versed in the rudimentary tenets of what we called "The Plan of Salvation," which was the basis for our brief presentation. Later, beginning in the mid-1960s, I traveled to more distant places for a week or so as a volunteer lay missionary, joining others in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and in the suburbs of Atlanta to visit homes and share our faith in Christ. We approached each family with sincere prayers, and learned to rely on the presence of the Holy Spirit to overcome our timidity and uncertainties. In other words, we just did our best and had faith enough to relax and leave the results to God.
The Plan of Salvation is still an integral part of my weekly Bible lessons. I often outline it briefly when I receive a question about the nature of Christian faith from a visitor or when the lesson text has an evangelical meaning--as most of them do. In this first meditation, I want to share the Plan of Salvation with you, relying more on a few passages of Scripture than on my own words.
1. God loves all of us. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have everlasting life" (John 3:16). "For God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
2. All of us are sinners. Some of us may be satisfied with the way we are, feeling that we don't need God's mercy, but the Holy Scriptures are clear: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6). "There is no one who is righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). And "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
3. Sin separates us from God. What are the consequences of our violating God's moral code? There is a clear and disturbing answer: "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
4. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us, through our faith. Even the Hebrew patriarch Abraham did not earn his righteousness before God; it came because of his belief, or faith: "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For the scripture says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Romans 4:2-3 and Genesis 15:6).
"For by grace are you saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
5. Jesus came to remove the barrier of sin. "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24).
6. It is through our faith in Christ that we receive these blessings. "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved" (Romans 10:9-10).
These are the premises that all Christians have accepted. Some people may think this path to salvation is too simple and easy--that something else must be required for us to receive God's mercy and everlasting life. After all, most of the achievements in life--education, a good family, a successful career--require hard work, persistence, and sacrifice. Yet God's forgiveness and blessings are given to us freely, by pure grace.
This mistaken attitude reminds me of the reaction of the Syrian general Naaman, who went to the prophet Elisha to be cured of leprosy. Without leaving his tent, Elisha sent word that Naaman needed only to bathe in the little Jordan River seven times to be cured. The powerful man stormed away, furious at the simplicity of the prescription. But his servants said, "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'? So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean" (2 Kings 5:13-14).
The simple but profound fact is that our lives can be changed--beginning now--by professing our faith in Jesus Christ. The rest of this book will explore the fascinating, exciting, and remarkable ramifications of this basic, life-giving truth.